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What’s the future of Billy Napier, Florida Gators football?

It’s not time for hot seat speculation, but it is time to start asking uncomfortable questions.
 
Florida Gators football coach Billy Napier is 9-9 in his tenure, prompting uncomfortable questions about his future.
Florida Gators football coach Billy Napier is 9-9 in his tenure, prompting uncomfortable questions about his future. [ ANDY LYONS | Orlando Sentinel ]
Published Oct. 5, 2023|Updated Oct. 5, 2023

GAINESVILLE — Florida Gators coach Billy Napier does not appear to be on the hot seat. Let’s get that out of the way.

Barring an off-field scandal or on-field freefall, it’s impossible to see the Gators spending more than $30 million to get rid of him this season and hard to see it happening next year, either. There’s still a chance — maybe even a good one —he turns things around and makes Florida elite again.

But UF’s worst loss to Kentucky since the year Napier was born (1979) leaves reasonable, uncomfortable questions about his performance and where his program is headed. We’re not speculating about his job security. Rather, consider this a starting point for questions Florida fans and administrators must answer if things don’t improve, beginning Saturday with what On3 deemed a “must not lose” game against Vanderbilt.

Why should Florida football fans be concerned about Billy Napier?

Kentucky gashed Florida last week, leading to uncomfortable questions about Billy Napier's performance.
Kentucky gashed Florida last week, leading to uncomfortable questions about Billy Napier's performance. [ BRIAN SIMMS | Lexington Herald-Leader ]

Since World War II, only two Florida coaches had a worse record through 18 games than Napier (9-9); Charley Pell was 6-11-1 in 1978-79, and Raymond B. Wolf went 3-14-1 in 1946-47.

Six of Napier’s losses have been by at least two scores, including both this year (24-11 at Utah and 33-14 at Kentucky). His predecessor, Dan Mullen, had only seven such losses in his 49 games. Napier also went winless against Florida’s rivals in Year 1, led the Gators’ first loss at Vanderbilt in 34 years and is 5-9 against Power Five opponents.

After nine penalties and special teams mistakes helped doom Florida at Utah, the Gators committed 10 penalties at Kentucky and a different costly special-teams mistake. That isn’t progress.

What are signs Billy Napier can turn the Florida Gators around?

Trevor Etienne has been one of the Florida Gators' best players under Billy Napier.
Trevor Etienne has been one of the Florida Gators' best players under Billy Napier. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times (2022) ]

Napier said Monday that the Gators are “getting better at our process,” and pointed to the growth of young players. Many of Florida’s top contributors are players he brought in, either as transfers (receiver Ricky Pearsall) or recruits (running back Trevor Etienne, leading tacklers Shemar James and Jordan Castell).

Napier’s first full recruiting class was deep; 18 of his 20 high school signees were blue-chip prospects. Most encouragingly, his 2024 class is fourth nationally with five-star quarterback DJ Lagway.

Lastly, Napier’s big win over Tennessee last month offered tangible proof his blueprint can work.

How fast have related rebuilding jobs taken?

Alabama got off to a rocky start in Nick Saban's first year before becoming a dynasty.
Alabama got off to a rocky start in Nick Saban's first year before becoming a dynasty. [ MONICA HERNDON | Times (2016) ]
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Alabama’s Nick Saban

Napier tie: Worked under Saban and borrowed a lot from the ’Bama process.

Year 1: 7-6 with a rock-bottom loss to Louisiana Monroe.

Year 2: Started 5-0 with top-10 wins over Clemson and Georgia. Finished 12-2 and ranked sixth.

Georgia’s Kirby Smart

Napier tie: Worked with Smart at Alabama in 2011 and 2013-15.

Year 1: Went 8-5 and finished unranked.

Year 2: Started 5-0 with top-25 wins over Mississippi State and Notre Dame. Lost to ‘Bama in the national championship.

Clemson’s Dabo Swinney

Napier tie: Was Swinney’s offensive coordinator in 2009-10.

Year 1: Went 9-5 with a loss to Georgia Tech in the ACC championship in Swinney’s first full season.

Year 2: Started 2-3 and finished 6-7, falling to USF in the Meineke Car Care Bowl before Swinney fired Napier.

Louisiana Lafayette’s Billy Napier

Year 1: Went 7-7 in his head coaching debut.

Year 2: Started 4-1 and finished with a school-record 11 wins.

How long should it take to rebuild the Florida Gators now?

Brian Kelly's 13-6 start at LSU includes a win at Florida last season.
Brian Kelly's 13-6 start at LSU includes a win at Florida last season. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP (2022) ]

Napier said in May that new coaches are “giving away two years of your life” because it “takes a while to get it going,” especially with the complications from the transfer portal and name, image and likeness (NIL). Regardless, Napier’s onfield results are among the worst from the 2021-22 coaching cycle.

Florida was among 15 Power Five schools that changed coaches that year (including future ACC member SMU). Napier has the third-worst record, ahead of only Virginia Tech’s Brent Pry (5-11) and Virginia’s Tony Elliott (3-12).

Ten hires from that cycle are in this week’s top 25. At least five of them, like Napier, inherited a program that fired its previous coach: Washington’s Kalen DeBoer, USC’s Lincoln Riley, Washington State’s Jake Dickert, Miami’s Mario Cristobal and LSU’s Brian Kelly.

Are the Florida Gators better now than under Dan Mullen?

The Gators lost to UCF in the 2021 Gasparilla Bowl.
The Gators lost to UCF in the 2021 Gasparilla Bowl. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times (2021) ]

Napier’s 9-9 record is one win better than Florida’s previous 18 games (including the 2021 Gasparilla Bowl led by interim coach Greg Knox). Of all 28 hires that cycle, only eight have seen less improvement in the standings; two (Miami and Notre Dame) are in this week’s top 20, and another is the Louisiana team Napier left.

The Gators sit 34th in ESPN’s SP+ advanced metrics. That’s four spots lower than they ended Mullen’s last season. Only six teams that changed coaches then have had a bigger slide: SMU, Louisiana, Colorado State, Fresno State, Nevada and Virginia. Risers include Miami (32nd to 12th), USC (82nd to 10th), LSU (65th to 24th), Washington (83rd to seventh) and Duke (113th to 28th).

What did the Florida Gators want when they hired Billy Napier?

The Florida Gators wanted sustained success when they hired Billy Napier from Louisiana.
The Florida Gators wanted sustained success when they hired Billy Napier from Louisiana. [ BRAD MCCLENNY/THE GAINESVILLE SUN | AP ]

“Competing at a high level and having sustained success,” as athletic director Scott Stricklin said the day he fired Mullen. Virtually everything Napier has done makes sense through that lens: a patient approach to his first early signing period; a similarly deliberate process in the spring portal window; a roster-building philosophy that relies more on high school recruits (who take time to develop) than transfers (who can make a bigger early impact); an offseason with more tweaks than major changes after going 6-7 in Year 1. All involved potential short-term hits in favor of long-term gains that build toward sustained success.

To what extent is Napier’s record a reflection of that goal? And is that philosophy still wise in the NIL/portal era?

What’s the path forward for Billy Napier and the Gators?

Billy Napier calls Florida's offensive plays. Will he still be doing so in 2024?
Billy Napier calls Florida's offensive plays. Will he still be doing so in 2024? [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]

The most likely scenario involves significant changes after a regular season that finishes around .500. One possibility is for Napier to replace himself as offensive play caller; Florida is No. 108 in scoring against Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) teams. Another is for him to restructure his staff to add a full-time special-teams coach instead of using an off-field analyst to oversee the unit. It’s worth wondering whether he’ll find a way to evaluate faster so Florida can become a bigger player in the portal.

Regardless, the key remains young talent — players already on his roster and the elite but unsigned ‘24 recruiting class.

What are the potential pitfalls for Billy Napier at Florida?

How much will Billy Napier adjust if this season remains a struggle?
How much will Billy Napier adjust if this season remains a struggle? [ STEPHEN M. DOWELL | Orlando Sentinel ]

The worst-case scenario involves a second losing season that causes the recruiting class to splinter. The argument for long-term optimism would dwindle with every blue-chip defection.

The 2024 schedule looks historically tough with 11 Power Five opponents (eight SEC games plus Florida State, Miami and UCF). Eight are ranked in this week’s top 25, and a ninth (Texas A&M) isn’t far off. Even an improved team could struggle against that slate.

Napier has resisted major changes and sounded defensive Monday. If Florida continues to struggle, will he be willing and able to make the necessary adjustments?

Questions to monitor

Billy Napier's Gators were 6-6 with Anthony Richardson as the starter last season.
Billy Napier's Gators were 6-6 with Anthony Richardson as the starter last season. [ PHELAN M. EBENHACK | AP (2022) ]

• How much do the Gators improve this fall? Florida State’s Mike Norvell was under similar scrutiny after an 0-4 September in Year 2. His Seminoles won five of their last eight (including the fourth-and-14 triumph over Miami) and made enough in-season progress to inspire confidence in a turnaround. Can Napier do the same thing?

• Colts rookie Anthony Richardson became the youngest quarterback in the Super Bowl era to pass for multiple touchdowns and rush for at least one in the same game. If he becomes an NFL star, how does that reflect on Napier (who went 6-6 while developing Richardson last season)?

• School president Ben Sasse is much more interested in sports than his predecessor, Ken Fuchs. How involved will Sasse be in athletics, including pushing for potential administrative changes?

• • •

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